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Like many countries in the region Bangladesh has witnessed the growth of Islamic militancy in recent years.
Fueled by resentment over the war in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as anger at the lack of development militant groups have found fertile ground for their ideas, particularly in rural areas where some of Asia’s poorest people live.
On a recent trip to the capital Dhaka, our reporter Katie Hamann explored why militant Islam has growing appeal in Bangladesh and just what the government is doing to fight it.“The Bengali’s have a long history you know...we have a history of written and oral together, it is a four thousands year history...and our history is very secular and liberal and humane...”
“The growth of fundamentalism and the growth of radicalism in Bangladesh has suddenly intensified over the last few years and I don’t really think we are addressing those issues very well here in Bangladesh.”
Bangladesh was the first country in South Asia to adopt a secular constitution after its war of liberation in 1971.
Enshrined in the nations founding documents was the fundamental right of every citizen to practice their faith freely and the separation of religion and state.
These principles lasted just five years.
In 1976 following the assassination of the so called ‘father of the nation’ Mujibur Rahman, the constitution was amended to allow faith based political parties and invoking Allah as the nation’s ultimate authority.
So began Shahriar Kabir’s three-decade struggle against the rising tide of militant Islam and the infiltration of religion into politics.
A writer and filmmaker, Kabir is the President of the Forum for a Secular Bangladesh.
He walks with a limp after two assassination attempts.
“I’m not afraid of that because what I believe, this is my country. We have created this country; we want secular democracy in this country. Those who are opposed to this you know notion of Bangladesh, they should not be treated as citizens of Bangladesh. You are trying to convert Bangladesh into Pakistan.”
Islamic militancy has always found company in Bangladesh, dating back to the days when the country was still East Pakistan.
In recent years however, conservative Islamic organisations have discovered a trouble society receptive to their message.
Like many countries with Muslim populations, Bangladesh has been deeply troubled by America’s War on Terror.
Many Muslim’s saw the invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan as a direct challenge to them also.
Major General ANM Minurazzaman is President of the Bangladesh Institute of Peace and Security explains.
“Events in Iraq and also in Afghanistan had a very negative and traumatic effect on so in many ways Bangladeshi society has become more receptive to some of the lures of radicalism and militancy that is also visiting many other countries and many other Muslim majority countries.”
He says hardline views have flourished in rural areas, where discontent over the lack of public services, jobs and endemic corruption has long eroded public confidence.
And as well as new sources of income, globalisation has created channels for new ideas.
“The Bangladeshi form of Islam has been the Sufi brand, which in many ways is quite liberal and accepts the cultural part of our Bengaliness into the concept of being a Muslim. But when our expatriate workers come back to Bangladesh, they carry the middle-eastern or Saudi Wahabi brand of the concept, comparatively and they become the social elite in those groups, so they are able to influence their community faster than any other people in convincing them that the ways they think is the true Islam or the Wahabism brand is something to be followed in Bangladesh.”
Political upheavals have made the task of monitoring militant activities more difficult.
No elected government has completed a full term in office since the nations creation in 1971.
Some analysts criticize the former government led by the Bangladesh Nationalist Party or BNP in coalition with the ultra-conservative Jamaat-e-Islami for ignoring the rising militancy in the early 2000’s.
It was under their watch in August 2005 that terrorists carried out a massive attack, detonating 500 bombs across the nation in the space of half and hour.
“The top leader of Jammat Matiur Rahman Nizami, during the BNP period, she always claimed that there is no militant, everything is a media creation.”
Veteran journalist Tipu Sultan has been reporting on militant activity for five years.
“No days again BNP they try to deny it, they try to [say] that the militancy group in Bangladesh they are created by Indian intelligence agency, it is their political propaganda, they try to get some political advantage, they try to blame Awami League.”
But the Bangladeshi government did received international praise for prosecuting those responsible for the 2005 and other attacks.
Seven militants were executed in 2007.
But only four groups have been banned in recent years; too few says Minurazzaman.
“What we know now, there are about 33 known militant or terrorist groups operating in Bangladesh of which only four have been banned. But I think the government should take a review of the activities of other groups and probably ban some other activities in Bangladesh. There have been massive intelligence failures in this country, for which a number of incidents took place. Some of the activities of these groups indicate that they have grown capacity to a level where they can do operations inside the country or outside the country, so I’m quite worried about the level of preparedness and capacity on the part of the militant and terrorist groups in Bangladesh.”
Concern is rising too that Bangladesh is becoming a sanctuary for foreign terrorist leaders.
In July Bangladeshi authorities arrested wanted Indian terrorist Mufti Obaidullah, part of a Pakistan based Islamist terrorist organization Laskar-e-Taiyeba.
Minurazzaman says the escalation of the war in Afghanistan and the recent Pakistani government assault against the Taliban in the Northwest Frontier Province could be forcing terrorists eastward.
“Many of these people will try to find out even more hideouts and Bangladesh could be a destination because of the large Muslim majority and rather hospitable people in the countryside.”
Whether Bangladesh’s newest government is alert to these threats or not remains to be seen.
One of Prime Minister Sheik Hasina’s main campaign pledges was the establishment of a South Asian Anti-Terrorism Taskforce, but since her election little has been said about this ambitious but much needed group.